Weaving some common threads

As big a stage as University of Phoenix Stadium was for Boise State football in its first Fiesta Bowl appearance in January of 2007, it still did not compare to what Gonzaga was looking at last night in the NCAA Tournament championship game. The Zags and North Carolina had the nation’s undivided attention. The Bulldogs hung their heads at the end of the 71-65 Tar Heels win, but c’mon. Although it was “zagonizing,” it was a compelling title tilt, and nobody has to doubt Gonzaga’s worthiness again. Actually, Bronco football had a chance to reach the same type of participation pinnacle in 2010 as it was in the national championship conversation before its wrenching overtime loss at Nevada. But that’s another story.

Gonzaga hoops and Boise State football have often been compared (that was especially the case five years ago). Both started their current runs in 1999, both have reached great heights, and both have had sustainability. The Zags have had fewer blips than the Broncos, though. The Bulldogs just completed their 19th consecutive trip to the Big Dance. They’ve made the West Coast Conference championship game in 22 of the past 23 seasons, and they’ve won 16 of them. Gonzaga has also had the same coach the past 18 seasons, Mark Few.

It’s been a memorable five or so days for Boise State coach Leon Rice, one of the former Gonzaga assistants assembled by Few in Phoenix. Those are certainly ties that bind. “We went back to Mark’s room after they beat South Carolina on Saturday night, Ray (Giacoletti) and I,” Rice recalled in the Spokane Spokesman-Review. “We watch the end of the North Carolina-Oregon game and we’re just kind of quiet when they flash on the screen, ‘Championship game: Gonzaga vs. North Carolina.’ I look at Mark and he looks at me and says, ‘And I had to talk you into leaving Yakima Valley.’” Few hired Rice out of the junior college ranks when he was promoted to head coach in 1999. Few also spends quality time in the Treasure Valley—he’s married to the former Marcy Laca of Parma.

Word out of Boise State’s second scrimmage of spring football Saturday is that Robert Mahone and Ryan Wolpin got virtually all the work at running back, and both looked good. In fact, both looked “sculpted.” One guy said Wolpin reminded him of former Stanford star Christian McCaffery out there. That would be nice. “Ryan Wolpin’s a stud,” said coach Bryan Harsin last week. “He’s probably been our most physical player of spring camp.”

Not to forget Mahone, who was expected to have the inside track alongside Alexander Mattison this fall. “Rob’s a big guy—a bigger back—he can move,” Harsin said at the beginning of spring. “He did some really good things (on scout team).” Now? “You’re starting to see him develop within our football team.” We’ll get an idea of how much Saturday in the Blue & Orange Game. Make no mistake, though, Harsin is missing Mattison on the field as he rehabs a shoulder injury. “Are we where we need to be? No,” said Harsin. “We need Alexander back.” The sophomore is, by the way, participating in non-contact drills. There’s only one other running back on Boise State’s spring roster, Jake Shaddox, a transfer from Azusa Pacific.

The end of the Alaska Aces is near. Whether it will come this Saturday night with the Idaho Steelheads on the ice in Anchorage or sometime beyond in the Kelly Cup Playoffs depends on what happens this week. The Aces are currently on the outside looking in for the postseason, but if they sweep the Steelies and get help in the form of some Utah Grizzlies losses, the final curtain will not be drawn. If it doesn’t play out that way, however, these three games at Sullivan Arena will be the last ones in the storied history of the Aces. Club owners announced last month that the franchise will fold due to financial losses.

Who do the Idaho Steelheads play next week in the Kelly Cup Playoffs? That is still to be determined. The Steelies will be the No. 3 seed in the Mountain Division, while the Allen Americans and Colorado Eagles go down to the wire this week in deciding the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds (Idaho will face the latter). Allen goes into the final week in first place, one point ahead of Colorado. The Americans have three games remaining—at home against Wichita on Wednesday and on the road at Tulsa on Friday and at Wichita on Sunday. The Eagles visit Rapid City for games this Friday and Saturday.

It’s surely small consolation to Neil Resnick and Tina Bird after their Boise State women’s gymnastics team was denied a first-ever trip to nationals Saturday. But it’s a well-deserved honor, as the duo has been named West Region Co-Coaches of the Year by its peers. The Broncos finished No. 13 in the country, their highest season-ending ranking in program history, and their final regional qualifying score of 196.910 was a school record.

A rather shocking announcement yesterday: the resignation of Mike Prater after 28 years at the Idaho Statesman. Prater revealed it in a lengthy Facebook post that heaped praise on the Statesman and his years there. But this was tucked into the piece: “This week, production of the Idaho Statesman print product is being outsourced to a corporate hub in California, where the Statesman will be produced, designed and edited by copy editors who know very little to nothing about sports in the Treasure Valley.” Not good. Best wishes to Prater, who will remain at KTIK for the foreseeable future. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with him (who does?). But I’ve always respected his work.

This Day In Sports…April 4, 1983:

In one of the great Cinderella stories in NCAA Tournament history, North Carolina State upsets Houston’s phi-slamma-jamma team 54-52 on Lorenzo Charles’ followup dunk of an airball at the buzzer to win the national championship. The lasting image of that game is the late Jim Valvano—ecstatic in victory—running around the court looking for someone to hug.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment Sunday nights at 10:30PM on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 The Ticket. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)